In northern Virginia, parents yearn to “get their kids into T.J.” – the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.  It’s our answer to New York’s Bronx Science and Stuyvesant – publicly-funded high schools for the best and brightest.  Parents’ underlying theory, as far as I can tell, is that attending elite high schools helps their kids get into elite colleges.  Most of these parents are so convinced that they see their theory as proven fact.  But such confidence is misplaced.  While elite high schools send tons of kids to elite colleges, this could easily reflect the initial quality of the students rather than the transformative power of the school.

What’s really going on?  Stuyvesant graduate Ben Lanier recently pointed me to Paul Attewell‘s eye-opening “The Winner-Take-All High School” (Sociology of Education, 2001).  Bottom line: Correcting for student quality, elite high schools hurt students’ prospects for elite college admission.  Why?  Because colleges put heavy weight on high school class rank:

[F]ormulas used by elite colleges in the admissions process, especially an emphasis on class rank in high school, create a higher hurdle for students who are educated in public high schools where there is a high concentration of talented young people in one school. Students who have excellent test scores and high grade point averages (GPAs) from rigorous courses but are not at the top of their class are downgraded by these formulas. For such students, entry into elite colleges from star public schools requires higher test scores than entry from elsewhere.

Attewell begins by using Dartmouth’s published admissions algorithm to run some simulations, noting that “there is a high degree of agreement between admissions decisions using this method and decisions made by other highly selective colleges that use the same basic inputs but in a slightly different way.”

The formula calculates an AI by combining three components: SAT I scores, SAT II scores, and the student’s class rank in his or her particular high school.

Illustrative results:


To complete the argument, Attewell shows that class rank works in the obvious way.  Being the biggest fish in the biggest pond is hard.



The odds of being in the top decile for a student in an exam star public school was only 24 percent of the odds of a student with the same SAT scores from a nonstar public school (the reference category). The odds of a student from a nonexam star public school being in the top decile was 30 percent of the odds of an equivalent-scoring student in a nonstar public school. 

Attewell covers a range of other fascinating issues, including elite high schools’ perverse efforts to discourage their locally-mediocre-but-absolutely-outstanding students from taking Advanced Placement courses.  Don’t just read the whole thing.  Rethink your children’s educational strategy.  I know I am.